Arsenal get the Premier League ball rolling on Saturday | Pool/Getty Images
A drastically reduced pre-season, on the surface, was the dream scenario; less time agonisingly waiting for the Premier League to return, twiddling our thumbs on Saturday afternoons and playing our 15th game of cards in a row. None of that.
No desperately trying to think of something worthwhile to do instead of parking our backsides on the sofa and having countless different pieces of technology on the go so we can get all the football we can feasibly indulge in at once.
So how will the relationship between technical director Edu Gaspar and manager Mikel Arteta work moving forward?
? An exclusive interview with Edu and Vinai Venkatesham ?
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) September 10, 2020
Sure is, although that side of things foolishly overlooks the more intricate elements of running a football club, such as fitness, recovery time and rather crucially, managing a squad.
Mikel Arteta, no longer ‘head coach’ after his official title shifted to ‘first-team manager’, made it abundantly clear last season that his squad must undergo significant surgery this summer window if Arsenal are to stand any chance of returning to the Premier League top four. Words of encouragement, no doubt, but yet to come to fruition.
The window won’t slam shut until 5 October, leaving plenty of time left to go, but as of yet, it’s been a fairly quiet period for the Emirates Stadium doorman. Dani Ceballos has returned on loan, Willian joined as a free agent, Gabriel Magalhaes has come in for £27m, Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares have made their loans permanent and William Saliba is back from his loan, but otherwise, it’s all quiet on the northern front.
No player has left the club for a fee – Henrikh Mkhitaryan had his contract mutually terminated – and the host of names touted to be coming into the fold to offer a timely squad boost have not come to fruition. Not ideal. Especially with no money left in the reserve tank.
Sokratis and Guendouzi are two players Arsenal are trying to shift | Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
With Fulham on the horizon as the early kick-off on Saturday, there is no time to cry over spilled milk. The squad available, a depleted, injury-ravaged and wholly incomplete side, must instead focus on the task at hand: claiming three points.
Despite there being some changes in personnel, the issues within the side that have repeatedly bubbled to the surface during Arteta’s reign have not been entirely banished. As seen with the three most recent matches at Wembley, Arsenal have a newfound grit and solidity about them, but Arteta’s main fault in his CV remains.
Altering the style to diminish attacking flow with a more structured and rigid shape, Arsenal scored fewer goals last season in the Premier League than they had done in the past 24 years. Still, they lost far too many points from winning positions under Arteta. After defeat to Tottenham back in July, the Gunners had dropped 15 points from matches where they had led, the most of any side since Arteta took over.
Performances, and results, have improved since, but with an incomplete squad to contend with at Craven Cottage, they mustn’t allow that weak underbelly to return. Mohamed Elneny looks likely to start in midfield, as does Rob Holding in defence – two players who looked destined to leave this summer only for a lack of suitors and injuries respectively to put the brakes on such departures.
The pair put in a good showing in the Community Shield, but neither are infallible.
Elneny could start on Saturday | Pool/Getty Images
Whatever the odds may be, they will favour the visitors in west London. Fulham have come up via the play-offs, not invested heavily and themselves boast a rookie manager in the job. They are quite unanimously, favourites for the drop.
With a knee-trembling set of fixtures coming up for Arsenal, the emphasis on winning at Craven Cottage couldn’t be more clear. After the Cottagers it’s West Ham, then an utterly terrifying run of Liverpool, Sheffield United, Manchester City, Leicester and Manchester United, with another dose of the Foxes thrown in for Carabao Cup fun.
Start as you mean to continue runs true here; six points in London derbies could come about without any investment, while equally by the time those fixtures come and go, there will have been two weeks to fill the glaring holes in the squad before that daunting trip to Liverpool.
It has to be gutsy, determined and above all, solid. Signs of weakness have been weened out over the past few months, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been put to bed entirely. Failure against everyone’s favourite for the drop will be a tell-tale sign of that.
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